Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #195. First published in the St. Cloud Times online and in print, Oct 1, 2023

I am EXTREMELY proud to be American. I thought this while reading Times Writers Group columnist Gerry Feld’s “I’m proud of America, and you should be too” (Sept. 10). He begins, “I find it incredibly hard to believe how many people are no longer proud of America.”

Feld cites recent Gallup polling statistics that say 38 percent of Americans are EXTREMELY proud to be American, 27 percent VERY, 22 percent MODERATELY, 9 percent a LITTLE, 4 percent NOT. “These are the lowest numbers since 2001.”

I suspect Feld would be surprised by my claim to be in the top 38 percent, since only 28 percent of Democrats declare themselves EXTREMELY proud (58 percent of Republicans are in that category). But I’m proud for a collection of reasons that overlaps only slightly with the ones enumerated by Feld.

He compiles a list: America’s contribution to winning two world wars; aid to nations suffering calamities, “never expecting one dime in repayment”; opening our doors to refugees like Albert Einstein; Salk’s polio vaccine and Drew’s long-term storage of blood plasma; sending astronauts to the moon, with safe return, six times; growing better crops and helping feed people around the world.

Now, Feld admits this is not the whole story. He notes that we are having “bad times.” But he insists that “America always finds a way to right itself and it will again.” Though Feld and I would disagree on what’s “bad” about the current times, I certainly hope for the continuation and revival of the sorts of reasons for pride that he enumerates. However, I believe he is wrong both about what we really need and about what the remedy for the “bad times” is.

Yes, America has done good things. But America has done awful things, and trying to override them with a catalog of good things is a flimsy prop for pride.

Genocide of the American Indians (yes, genocide is the right term). A poem called “The Seal of Minnesota,” by Mary Henderson Eastman, wife of the seal’s original designer, makes this perfectly clear right here in our state: “Give way, give way, young warrior, / Thou and thy steed give way … Thou and thy noble race from earth / Must soon be passed away, / As echoes die upon the hills, / Or darkness follows day.” I can’t imagine a more overt endorsement of the twin genocidal scourges of the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny.

Slavery. The 1619 Project demonstrates that the arrival of African slaves in Jamestown is as central to the American story as is the landing of the Pilgrims the following year at Plymouth. The term “slavery,” while necessary, by its very abstraction can desensitize us to the reality — generation after generation after generation of human beings living and dying as property of white people who were persuaded by religion and what passed as “science” that this was the proper, even divinely ordained, way things should be. White supremacy was only briefly sidetracked before Jim Crow took over — and it’s still alive and well.

The tale of evil — which could fill many more paragraphs — might be thought ample reason not to be proud to be an American, let alone EXTREMELY proud. But my pride is in my country’s willingness to face up to its sins and to search for ways to atone for them — though at times, like now, this seems woefully deficient. I’m not personally responsible for the genocide and slavery, but I am a beneficiary of their consequences, and when we pretend otherwise by what we leave out of our nation’s narrative and are unwilling to restore what was lost, then I am not proud to be an American. My pride requires the whole story.

My other quarrel with Feld is with his remedy. He says that “the problems we face were not caused by our country, they are caused by human beings, your elected officials. … They’re out to move forward the agenda set up by their political party, it has nothing to do with you!” And it’s not just the party. “Most politicians are there to get rich, to line their pockets.”

I haven’t run for office, but I’ve worked on lots of campaigns — local, state, federal. Feld’s caricature of “most politicians” is an insult, a deflection from the reality. People who put themselves forward are, for the most part, public servants willing to engage in grueling work to get elected and then arduous work — for you and me — once in office. The parties can be myopic, of course, but they have reasons besides greed for their policies. “Cleaning house in Washington" is Feld’s antidote to what ails us. This absolves him and me and you from responsibility for making an America of which to be EXTREMELY proud.